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Italian town is basking in its newfound film fame

Canadian nurse Juliette Binoche and her burnt-out case, Ralph Fiennes (a k a "The English Patient"), have departed, but the monastery where they hid out remains hauntingly lonely and lovely a couple of miles outside of town.

"Oh, signore, grazie a Dio for `The English Patient,' " says the storekeeper Piselli as he sells me a locally made straw hat at his tiny, merchandise-jammed hardware-and-everything-else emporium just off Pienza's central square, Piazza Pio II. "The movie, it will bring tourists and business."No doubt about that. Just thank God, be patient, and they will come. The woman in the tourist office doesn't speak English, but soon somebody will. You can't be the silent star - as is Pienza, this pleasant Tuscan hilltop village of 2,000 inhabitants - in a very popular, very talking picture without attracting attention and followers.

Pope Pius II was born here as Enea Silvio de'Piccolomini in 1405. A clever, well-educated townie, he wrote poetry, erotic stories, was a diplomat and politician. A late but brilliant starter in his last venture, the church - ordained a priest at age 41 - he climbed Jacob's ladder easily, making pope in 12 years.

His coat of arms adorns the small, tastefully plain stone cathedral of faded ivory facade and attractively striped vaulting within, yet the important cinematic downtown landmark doesn't exist. Except on film. It's the booby-trapped statue within a fountain that exploded, killing a British sapper during a drunken celebration of the war's end in Italy.

Built for the movie, then removed, it is survived by a centuries-old well, walled like a bowl, where hikers lunch on bread, cheese, and olives, and young would-be artists diligently sketch and paint the scene. As American patients, suffering from nothing more than the din and crowded bustle of Rome, we welcome the serenely curative powers of Tuscany.

"Balm to the eyes. That's what Tuscany is," quietly raves fellow traveler Sampson.

"E vero - ain't that the truth!" friend Aurelio nods affirmatively. She is at the wheel of a rental car, a wonderful machine you seldom see in the United States, a Lancia. "Balm to the belly, too," she will say later after lunch at La Torre on the grounds of a very active monastery, Abbey Abbazia in Mount Oliveto. "I could live on this Tuscan peasant soup" - immersing fava beans and home-baked bread - "and the cheese." Pecorino, the regional specialty, both aged and fresh.

Entering this north-central patch on the peninsular boot at Centeno, we are enveLoped in a panorama - call it "the full Tuscany" - that has beguiled wanderers forever. Verdant, undulating hills gashed red and yellow by poppies and ginestra are squatted on by ancient walled towns and garrisoned by brigades of poplars while vineyards crawl in all directions. Copses spill as though flows of green lava, and solo trees at the crest could be dancers against azure flats, the sky.

Halting our advance for a couple of minutes, Mario, a sign man in the blue coveralled uniform of a highway repair crew, says proudly that he, too, has a vineyard. A thumbnail of ground, "but enough to make my own wine."

The countryside, showing off in more shades of green than a mixed salad, calls to Sampson's mind "one of those 16th-century paintings with close-up human figures and deep, detailed backgrounds of tilled fields, castles, estates, farm animals, towns."

Out of Gallina the already skinny road becomes downright bulimic, running through lumpy terrain and high grass. Perhaps it's the same mined road where Nurse Hana/Binoche met her Sikh lover-to-be, Kip, the bomb disassembler portrayed by Daveen Andrews. "I hope Kip cleared all the mines," says Aurelio, remarking on the similarity of the settings.

Then Pienza appears on the horizon - poplars, spires, a rampart - and disappears as the road dives into a hollow. But it can't hide for long. Nonresidents park at the foot of the steep, encircling sandstone wall, measled with red bricks. A ramp ascends to the town where it's clear that the war is long past, and so are Binoche, FieNnes, Andrews and Willem Dafoe.

Still, the woman who doesn't speak English at the tourist office knows what we're looking for. She is an Italian patient enough to deal with our paltry Italian vocabularies, and gets across the message: The monastery where Binoche as Hana took "Patient" to die is not far. She shows us on a map: "Santa Anna in Camprena."

Maybe a 15-minute drive, wending from pavement onto a rutted dirt trail and, there, up ahead - unmistakably, the brick bell tower looms. It is the shot, the sight that told the nurse here was a refuge, the place to call a cease-fire and their withdrawal from war.

Santa Anna, amid a rural jumble of poplars and olive groves, falls from the frames of the film. Silent. Deserted. Rundown. The courtyard where Kip pitched his tent and wooed Hana looks unchanged, though Benny Goodman's clarinet and the "Wang Wang Blues" do not echo in the long corridors, bringing momentary relief to Fiennes' desiccated Count Almasy.

Probably the scenes in the room of the "Patient" were shot on a set. None of the cells upstairs in the L-shaped monastery would have been suitable. Actually a couple of monks do tenant the place. There are some beds, and backpackers are welcome, but the building is empty as we stroll through, looking for remnants of Almasy's well-crammed and pasted-up copy of Herodotus. Nicer this way. In the chapel are restored frescoes of 16th-century painter Il Sodoma, principally Christ sportingly stretching a loaf of bread to share with a crowd. "Reminds me we haven't had lunch," says Sampson.

Rain suddenly descends as we exit. Cooling, refreshing, the downpour evokes the jubilant scene of Hana, Kip, and Caravaggio carrying "Patient" outside to soak his parchment skin in a heavenly shower.

For a minute or so. "But, I am getting wet," I say impatiently to Aurelio. "Let's head for the car."

"Relax and enjoy," she urges. "It's only a movie."